A glimpse into a successful portfolio career

- Entrepreneurial Skills

by Manja Costermans

This is an outside-in look at the drivers of portfolio career happiness and success.

As a follower of a more traditional career path with geographical challenges, the introduction of the portfolio career challenge caught my curiosity. What was it? Who would follow such a career path? Why? And how to do it well?

After a brief explanation by Sam, I realized that I had worked very closely with a portfolio career builder whose unconventional behaviour, endless curiosity, and dynamic career moves have always fascinated me.

Michael Aal

This portfolio career builder is called: Michael Aal. Dutchman and owner of the following portfolio: financial adviser, marketing consultant, co-founder of a software company, data protection officer, mentor and wannabe local politician

During this year’s Web Summit, we had a chance to meet, eat and discuss the drivers of his career. I will not bore you with the details of a long meal on a buzzing Lisbon night, but will leave you with what we concluded to be the four drivers of his successful portfolio career.

Portfolio Career Driver #1: Seek genuine fun, don’t compromise for less

Michael and I met seven years ago.  I interviewed him for a database marketing assignment in the company I worked for at the time and I could already tell that Michael wasn’t just in it for the money. During the interview it became clear that Michael was looking for fun and a good laugh, without comprising on professionalism and results.

His reviews on his marketing consultancy website consistently highlight his sense of humour and the fun he brings to the workplace.

But Michael is not the person to show this behaviour only to get a positive review. He lives up to it, which has resulted in rejecting assignments or even in immediately ending assignments and taking the financial consequence when he felt it was not bringing him the fun and satisfaction that he seeks at work.

Or as Michael would phrase it: “When I made the decision to leave my corporate job, I also chose to give up the rut and look for the big fun. At all times I want to avoid feeling like a wage slave.”

Portfolio Career Driver #2: Adapt your network to each role

Michael experienced two defining moments in his career that made him realize he had to adapt his network to reach his goals. The first time was when he transitioned from a finance to a marketing role within the same company. Supported by a generous marketing budget, he put a relentless focus on getting the best parties to work with him. One of them being the internationally acclaimed Belgian marketing professor Steven van Belleghem. This helped Michael to understand the essence of his new challenge and to deliver the results.

After six years in marketing, Michael felt ready to build his own marketing company. But becoming an entrepreneur meant that he needed to again adapt his network. This time he added small and midsize companies to which he could sell short-term consultancy projects which allowed him to build a credible portfolio within less than a year. 

Portfolio Career Driver #3: Invest in your skillset

Over the past seven years, I’ve hired Michael twice as a database consultant. Once while working in the Netherlands, once in Germany. While I was managing a career and a family life as well as cultural challenges, Michael was working on himself. He would always be taking courses, exploring exciting concepts in marketing or trying out new things just for the fun of it. The most striking example was that he helped to set up a local political party with some friends in his town. Although Michael later told me that he mostly treated the political party as a product that required marketing, it also gave him valuable insight into politics.

Through the years, Michael’s search for personal development and career diversification has also inspired me to stay more on my toes when it comes to my own development. I consider this to be an unexpected side effect of a portfolio career: you make the traditional career builders realize that they also need to stay on top of their game!

When visiting Web Summit, I attended a presentation of the CEO of Upwork Stephane Kasriel. He spoke about a study that revealed that 55 percent of freelancers regularly update their skills whereas only 30 percent of employees would focus on this. It struck a cord with me and I believe that portfolio career builders are more often part of this dynamic freelancer group.

Portfolio Career Driver #4: Have a long-term perspective

Although his consultancy career was progressing well, Michael realized that his consulting business lacked important long-term elements such as a customer base and financial goodwill:

“Unconsciously I had reached a point of inconvenience with my consultancy career. I had come to realize the shortcomings for the long term. You know, as a self-employed consultant every year starts at zero,” he said.

When a friend shared her frustration with a survey tool that she was using in her consultancy business, they decided to develop a better software solution themselves. This idea resulted in a new software company called CEO Lab. On top of marketing and sales, Michael has also taken on the legal and financial responsibilities in this new company.

After significant product development, Michael and his three new business partners are poised to grow their business next year. Once more this will imply that Michael must build new networks and learn new skills to serve new markets.

A portfolio career has you always thinking ahead

So, at the moment Michael is running both a marketing consultancy and a software company. But what will be next? Michael seems full of ideas for new careers to add to his portfolio. Becoming an investor in crowd sourcing is one of them, but being in his mid-40s he realizes that he will someday enjoy handing over his portfolio ideas to the next generation.

Where has your portfolio career taken you? We want to read all about your winding roads in the comments below!

Photo: Branko Stancevic, Unsplash

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